Contact: Sasha Steinberg
STARKVILLE, Miss.— Three participants from the 1966 “March Against Fear” during the Civil Rights Movement challenged Mississippi State students to overcome fear and dedicate themselves to the service of others during a recent visit to the university.
The university’s African American Studies program continued its 10th anniversary celebration with a special March 1 panel discussion featuring U.S. Air Force veteran James Meredith and fellow “March Against Fear” activists Flonzie Brown-Wright and Hollis Watkins.
Attendees packed historic Lee Hall’s Bettersworth Auditorium to hear the panel moderated by MSU Associate Professor of History Jason Morgan Ward, author of “Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century” (Oxford University Press, 2016).
A Kosciusko native, Meredith became the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962. On June 5, 1966, Meredith started the “March Against Fear,” a solo march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to increase awareness of civil rights violations in the Magnolia State. He was shot on the second day of the march and unable to continue.
Major civil rights organizations resumed the march. Along with Martin Luther King Jr., community organizers Brown-Wright and Watkins were among those who aided the march.
Meredith later rejoined marchers in Jackson, including King and other civil rights leaders.
During his MSU presentation, Meredith introduced his wife, Judy Alsobrooks Meredith, an MSU graduate. He also read a paper, “The Policy History of Colored People in the United States Since the European Discovery of America,” which he considers “the most important thing I’ve ever written.”
“Mississippi is the place where a new policy on the black race can be developed that will work,” Meredith said. “The new policy should be number one: teach the black race good and right. Number two: make the black male useful again; teach the black male how to work with his hands. Number three: allow the black man to become a functional part of the black family.”
Based in Canton, Brown-Wright was among community members who provided shelter and food to King and other “March Against Fear” participants. She became the first African American female elected to public office in Mississippi when she was named Madison County election commissioner in 1968.
“I’ve been to jail, tear gassed, trampled on, scarred and bruised up, shot at, and had my life and the lives of my children threatened because I was involved in this movement,” Brown-Wright said. “But yet, none of those things deterred me because I was on a mission. I knew what I was doing for this movement was the right thing to do. Not for the fame, glory, nickels and dimes, but because if my life had to be sacrificed so that someone else’s life could be delivered, then here I am. Send me.”
Brown-Wright advised her audience to remember the “many precious lives” that were lost, including those of young people who came to Mississippi to aid in the major 1960s movement.
“Civil rights, to me, is what can you do for others,” Brown-Wright told her audience. “Mississippi has made great gains, but it’s up to you now to decide how this next century is going to play out.”
She continued, “Stay in school. Do your best. Make yourselves proud, make this country proud, and make your ancestors proud. You have an opportunity, obligation and responsibility to do all that you can to carry on the legacy of those who have given so much.”
Just as he did 50 years ago with “March Against Fear” participants, Watkins first encouraged his audience to join in singing uplifting freedom song verses. A Lincoln County native and Jackson community organizer, Watkins became the first Mississippi youth to join the 1961 Voting Rights Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“My father told me to always stand up for what is right, even if you’re the only one standing, and that’s the foundation that drove me to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” Watkins said. “A lot of work has been done, and a lot more work needs to be done. I encourage all of us to strive hard to look at ourselves, be honest with ourselves and overcome fear. Fear is one of the greatest things that holds us back.”
Watkins, who spent 55 days on death row in a Mississippi State Penitentiary maximum-security unit, said Wednesday evening that he is “thankful to be alive.”
“I knew change was going to come because I was going to be one of the willing workers to put the time and energy into bringing that change about,” Watkins told his audience. “Don’t just say 'I’m just one person;' that’s what we all are.”
“We did it back then, and with the high technology that you have today, the fight should be much swifter and much easier, and therefore, we should be able to accomplish a lot more. Don’t give up on yourself. Keep learning and put what you learn to positive use,” Watkins added.
Also making remarks during the evening program was Aram Goudsouzian, University of Memphis history department chair and author of “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014).
On Sunday, June 26, an estimated 15,000 people joined the last leg of the march into downtown Jackson for a rally at the state capitol, Goudsouzian noted.
“The Meredith March Against Fear is an inspiring story about the moments of great black pride…people overcoming their fears, people registering to vote, surging with pride, defying the symbols of white supremacy,” Goudsouzian said. “What had begun as the endeavor of one man ended with the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of the state of Mississippi.”
In addition to the AAS program, the panel discussion was supported by the university’s Office of Public Affairs and the James Worth Bagley College of Engineering’s Office of Diversity Programs and Student Development.
Part of the College of Arts and Sciences, MSU’s African American Studies program offers courses leading to a minor in African American Studies. For more, visit www.aas.msstate.edu.
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.